Restaurants: South-Side Scene, October 16, 2008 | Restaurant Review | Chicago Reader

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Restaurants: South-Side Scene, October 16, 2008

Soul food, ribs, burgers, and more

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South-Side Scene

Army & Lou's422 E. 75th | 773-483-3100

$Southern/Soul Food | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday-Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday

A favorite of Mayor Harold Washington back in the day, Army & Lou's has been dishing up well-executed southern and soul food for more than 60 years. For starters there's Louisiana gumbo; in the bread basket are yeasty homemade biscuits, fresh, flaky, and warm. Steak, chicken, and chops come smothered with gravy and served with corn bread: quintessential comfort food. The fried chicken has light, deliciously crispy breading; pieces are so meaty that half a chicken makes a very filling entree. It's worth ordering a few extra sides, though: greens are tender but not overcooked, sweet potatoes carry a hint of clove, and pickled beets and onions provide a tart contrast (there are also chitterlings, butter-boiled pig intestines best with plenty of hot sauce). Sweet potato pie and peach cobbler are made, our waitress told us, by a "little old lady from the neighborhood"—which is pretty much how they taste. —David Hammond

BJ's Market & Bakery8734 S. Stony Island | 773-374-4700

$Southern/Soul Food | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations accepted for large groups only

BJ's Market & Bakery, the flagship of John Meyers's miniempire (there's a new outpost at O'Hare), lays out honest food at an honest price, no fancy-pants frills, just down-home cooking you order at the counter and bring to your seat. Lightly breaded wings are the only fried chicken on the menu. Instead BJ's specializes in spice-rubbed smoked rotisserie chicken; moist, flavorful, it's a real deal: $13.99 gets you a whole bird, a comfortable feed for two. Greens, cooked with smoked turkey leg, have great tooth; black-eyed peas, simple and good, weren't cooked beyond recognition; even the green beans, though seemingly canned, had subtle seasoning that goosed them up a notch. Sweet potato fries make a good combo with BJ's signature mustard-fried catfish, and there's house-made banana pudding and peach cobbler. Alcohol is neither served nor allowed; on Sundays a big crowd rubs shoulders at the long buffet. —David Hammond

Calumet Fisheries3259 E. 95th | 773-933-9855

$Seafood | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Cash only

In a 1998 Reader story, Calumet Fisheries' Hector Morales lamented the decline in business that came with the death of the steel industry on the southeast side. But the tiny shack at the foot of the 95th Street Bridge is still smoking its own chubs, trout, and salmon steaks, heads, and collars over oak logs. These creatures remain moist after smoking, having been brined overnight. The vulnerable constitution of shrimp is the best endorsement of this process, remaining juicy and intensely smoky—though the monsters come dear at $20.99 a pound. Polyglot sailors still weigh in for fried catfish when they dock, and the fresh, crispy breaded aquatic life—frog's legs, shrimp, scallops, and smelts—are expressions of maritime rhapsody, like the sea spray that escapes the breaded crust of a juicy fried oyster. The dramatic location—it's where Elwood jumped the drawbridge in the Bluesmobile—is an ideal spot to clamber down to the river's edge with an order of deep-fried ocean critters and watch ships chug by. —Mike Sula

Chef Luciano/Gourmet Fish49 E. Cermak | 312-326-0062

$$Global/Fusion/Eclectic, seafood | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Reservations not accepted

Two restaurants in one single-story building, Chef Luciano tends more toward higher-end meals, Gourmet Fish to more standard fast foods such as fried fish and chicken. Offerings draw from all sorts of influences-Cajun, Italian, Jamaican, African, and chef-owner David Gupta's native Indian—and the results, as you might expect, are eclectic: Chef Luciano Cajun catfish, for instance, comes with a vegetable stir-fry accented with curry. On the other side of the building, Gourmet Fish turns out exceptional fried chicken, its crispy thin breading seasoned with cumin, turmeric, and cinnamon. Though there are a few tables scattered about, both spots are essentially take-out joints; eating on-site means doing so amid a crowd of people waiting for carryout orders served from the bulletproof carousel. On one of my visits a wild-eyed chef Gupta reamed a customer for requesting extra hot sauce, then chewed out a short-order cook for not having my order ready. Despite (or because of) Gupta's fiery temper, his food's generally quite good. In fact, his collard greens were perhaps the best I've had on the south side—and that's saying something. —David Hammond

Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles3947 S. King Dr. | 773-536-3300

$$American, Southern/Soul Food | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 11 | Reservations not accepted

Early reports of bad service and long waits may not be a result of the tremendous amount of attention this place received when it tried to exploit the good name of LA's esteemed Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles by calling itself Rosscoe's. One swift lawsuit and the motto on the menu—"A totally new concept in dining"—might be the only remaining bit of exterior dishonesty about it. Management seems to be making a valiant effort to keep up with demand, providing bulky security guys with earpieces for crowd control, a roving team of carpet cleaners with brooms and dustpans, and a sympathetic hostess who told us we'd wait 45 minutes for a table on an early Tuesday evening, then seated us in ten. Decent enough fried chicken and waffles with syrup couldn't be simpler, though a myriad of combinations—legs and waffles, thighs and waffles, quarter chicken or half, and on and on—fill one side of the menu, adding pointless confusion. On the other side there's a relatively small lineup of typical soul sides—mac 'n' cheese was very good, greens were undercooked—and a long list of pretty nonalcoholic concoctions (a "sunset" is lemonade topped with iced tea). The fact that the lines haven't diminished doesn't mean there's no such thing as bad publicity so much as that this neighborhood is still starved for a sit-down place where you can take your mom, your kids, or a date. Apart from the nearby Negro League Cafe and Blu 47, CHCW is pretty much all there is. —Mike Sula

Daddy O Jerkpit7518 S. Cottage Grove | 773-651-7355

$Caribbean | Lunch: Tuesday-Saturday; Dinner: Sunday, Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Monday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight | Cash only

I've been to Jamaica four times, and this is the only place I've gone in Chicago that comes close to capturing the unique flavor of authentic jerk chicken. It's cooked on the bone, chopped up, and served with a side of jerk seasoning for the truly adventurous (or crazy) who want a little extra spice. The peas and rice were moist, with fresh-shaved coconut chips providing a delightful accent. The fried plantain was delicious, as usual. My companion's oxtails were excellent, with the succulent meat cooked to perfection and falling off the bone. The neighborhood may not look like much, but the food is truly worth the trip. —Aaron Stigberg, Rater

Daley's Restaurant809 E. 63rd | 773-643-6670

$Southern/Soul Food | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

Daley's is one of the oldest existing restaurants in the city, if not the oldest, though ask any waitress exactly how old and you'll get a different answer every time—usually something like "A long time, baby." The previous owner, Nick Kyros, says an Irishman opened the place in 1892 and ran it until his father took over in 1918; now he's turned it over to his son Michael and co-owner Nick Zar, though he still hangs around some. Today the majority of his employees and customers are neighborhood folks who pack in for massive portions of mostly solid, sometimes-from-scratch soul food at practically historical prices. It's not hard to eat incredibly well, though you have to be selective. The biscuits are light and fluffy, but the mashed potatoes are instant. The chicken gumbo is tangy and thick but mined with canned green beans. One serving of smothered chicken can look like it was fed on steroids while another looks starved. The beefy, cheesy patty melt is a sure thing, as is a side of cabbage with bits of ham, and just about anything can be livened up with the bottle of spicy red pepper vinegar on each table. Nobody stays alive for more than a century without doing something right. —Mike Sula

Hand-Burgers11322 S. Halsted | 773-468-4444

$American, Burgers | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday | Closed Sunday | Reservations not accepted

In business only since last spring, Hand-Burgers carries on the south-side tradition of hand-formed griddle-cooked patties served with fresh-cut fries. Burgers begin as five-ounce balls of fresh meat that get mashed down into irregular circles on the griddle. After crisp edges form, the patty is bedded on a buttered and toasted bun and dressed with your choice of condiments (don't skip the grilled onions)—nothing complicated but very well executed. Skin-on fries are good with only a sprinkle of salt, or you can order like a south sider and have them doused with mild, vinegary hot sauce. The basic burger with fries will set you back $3.99. Like many other south-side burger emporiums, Hand-Burgers also feature a turkey burger that gives its beefy counterpart a run for the money. Basic is best at Hand-Burgers, but the spicy Hip Hot Burger or the pepper-and-onion-studded Meat Loaf Burger are also worth considering. Butter cookies and cake baked in-house round out the menu. While you wait—and you will wait, as each burger is made to order—take a moment to admire the minimuseum of stepping memorabilia scattered around the restaurant. Be warned that profanity will not be tolerated; a list of approved expletives (shucks, heck) is posted by the cash register. —Peter Engler

Harold's Chicken Shack #597247 S. Racine | 773-783-9499

$American | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: every night till 2 | Reservations not accepted

Among the older, more classically ornamented outposts in the great Harold's Chicken Shack empire, #59 is a prime example of a dark, forbidding little hole in a grim neighborhood from which great fried chicken emerges. It also shows evidence of the maverick spirit of various HCS proprietors, who sometimes veer from the template of a uniform chain with interesting and positive results. The chickens fried here are large, with stout, meaty wings and breasts that remain juicy, tender, and unpunished by the hot fresh-tasting oil. Other little touches make all the difference: a highly seasoned peppery crust, an unusually thick hot sauce, and thin batter-fried french fries. Conveniently, #59 adjoins Lee's E.T. Lounge, where "all parties will be catered by Harold's Chicken Shack." —Mike Sula

I-57 Rib House1524 W. 115th | 773-429-1111

$American, Barbecue/Ribs | Lunch, dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 1:30, Monday-Thursday till 11:30 | Cash only

This worthy barbecue shack has an enviable location, overlooking the Dan Ryan on Ashland, smack in between two exits. A leering, tarted-up, anthropomorphic pig and chicken beckon from each side of the door into a small ordering/waiting area. Conventional wisdom that real barbecue should be able to stand without sauce is not tested here. Like it or not, chewy, crispy tips and links will be sauced with a thick, sweet glaze—unnecessary, but not bad in moderation. It makes no sense that higher-profile operations to the north, trafficking in gelatinous boil-b-que, are consistently recommended to tourists and neophytes seeking the local stuff of legend, when this place stands prominently at the city gates. —Mike Sula

Izola's522 E. 79th | 773-846-1484

$Southern/Soul Food | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: Sunday-Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday | Closed Wednesday | Open late: 24 hours Sunday-Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday | Cash only

"We're in for a treat" ran through my head as I settled into Izola's. The table-hopping crowd was convivial and smiling, and our neighbors immediately engaged us in conversation—"Don't miss the fried chicken"—as bright-eyed octogenarian proprietor Izola White worked the room. Chicken soup foreshadowed good things to come, rich broth with chicken, celery, and thick, chewy house-made dumplings, which reappeared in the stewed chicken, tender dark meat with peppery gravy. Fried chicken had a crisp, aggressively seasoned crust encasing juicy flesh with a hint of salt. Short ribs were tender, with a zesty sauce, and salmon patties and eggs are a delicious if implausible-sounding combination—a dining companion declared them "better than some crab cakes I've paid 15 bucks for." Sides were uneven: spaghetti was overcooked and coleslaw was doused with mayo, but greens with hot-pepper-infused vinegar were terrific, and sweet potatoes were just the right side of sweet. There are two different seating areas, one a comfortable dining room, the other a more casual lunch counter for those in a hurry—though with the many charms of Izola's I don't see why one would want to rush. —Gary Wiviott

Lagniappe—A Creole Cajun Joynt1525 W. 79th | 773-994-6375

$$Cajun | Lunch, dinner: Tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, Monday | BYO

This Creole-Cajun place in Auburn Gresham started out as a catering and carryout joint only, but it now seats about 20 for dishes such as chicken or shrimp creole, an etouffee of the day, jambalaya, and a range of po'boys—shrimp, oyster, catfish, and soft-shell crab. Red beans and rice are available with or without a hunk of andouille, brought up from Louisiana; side dishes range from dirty rice (made what owner Mary Madison calls the authentic way, with chicken spleen) to "candy sweets," candied sweet potatoes. Madison offers a few more generally southern dishes as well—fried green tomatoes, Cajun grilled chicken, chicken wings and waffles, and pulled pork sandwiches. Banana pudding is the most popular dessert, but there's also sweet potato pie, peach cobbler, and "cake in a jar" (which is pretty much what it sounds like). Service is slow but courteous, and Lagniappe is BYOB. —Anne Ford

Lem's311 E. 75th | 773-994-2428

$American, Barbecue/Ribs | Dinner: Sunday, Monday, Wednesday-Saturday | Closed Tuesday| Open late: Friday & Saturday till 4; Sunday, Monday, Wednesday & Thursday till 2 | Cash only

A civic treasure among the city's honest smoke shacks, Lem's has long upheld the standard against which all Chicago barbecue should be measured. The rib tips, with a higher ratio of meat to gristle than you'll find at most joints, and the center-cut and small-end slabs are finished relatively fast over a relatively hot fire, bucking slow-smoke convention. They're deliciously tender and caramelized, limned with the telltale pink smoke ring. The excellence extends to the incomparable, complex sauce and coarsely textured hot links, which are too frequently served as mealy sacks of sawdust elsewhere. While disciples were saddened by the mysterious shuttering of the Lem's on State Street in 2003, the mother ship, with its unmistakable neon beacon, endures. —Mike Sula

The Rib Joint432 E. 87th | 773-651-4108

$American, Barbecue/Ribs | Lunch: Monday-Saturday; Dinner: seven days | Open late: Friday & Saturday till 2:45, Sunday-Thursday till 11:45

Lem's reigns only 12 blocks to the north, so this Chatham smoke shack is often unjustly overlooked. Center-cut and small-end ribs are lean and meaty marvels of anatomical design. Conversely, the tips are fatty (not a criticism) and don't frequently maintain their structural integrity. The meat in general evidences a deep pink smoke ring and has a slightly bacony flavor that wouldn't be bad with some eggs and toast. Don't be discouraged by the orangey and somewhat glutinous sauce—it's not oversweet, and if ordered hot it really packs heat. For those who require a healthy balance with their barbecue, the Rib Joint is conveniently situated a short distance from Dat Donut, shackled as it is to the inferior and mystifyingly lauded Leon's Bar-B-Q. —Mike Sula

That's-A-Burger2134 E. 71st | 773-493-2080

$American, Burgers | Lunch, dinner: tuesday-Saturday | Closed Sunday, monday | Reservations not accepted | Cash only

Idiosyncratic owner, out-of-the-way location, 20-minute wait for burgers, no seating, orders placed through bulletproof glass, impatient staff, no picture taking, and did I mention idiosyncratic owner? But all is forgiven after one big juicy chin-dripping, eye-rolling chomp into one of the better burgers in Chicago—maybe even the best if one factors in value. My burger of choice here is a half-pound of coarse ground beef with a sumolike ratio of fat to lean, topped with fried egg, tomato, onion, and sport peppers. It's a purist's choice in the face of the Whammy Burger, which is served dripping with cheese and crowned with a split Polish sausage, or the T.A.B. Special, which throws chili, cheese, bacon, and egg into the mix. Scented with sage and surprisingly moist, turkey burgers are also a draw, and turkey chili is tasty as a stand-alone or on burgers. Terrific fresh-cut fries are nestled in with the sandwiches. That's-a-Burger is takeout only; dining options are car, benches at the Metra stop across the street, or the scenic South Shore Cultural Center, just a few blocks to the east. —Gary Wiviott

Tropic Island Jerk Chicken Restaurant419 E. 79th | 773-978-5375

$Caribbean | Lunch, dinner: seven days

Hacked to order, Tropic Island's yard birds are generously steeped in the manifold spices that typify the island style, their flesh moist and soft, tinged with the rosy blush of a good smoke. They're served on rice and peas, with sidekicks of plantains and cabbage; these bland starches act as a kind of protective barrier against the tiny tubs of dark, nuclear sauce you might apply to the bird if you've something to prove. The standard repertoire of homey and often bony Jamaican eats are in effect: oxtails, brown stew chicken, yard salad, beef patties, callaloo, and something called reggae stir-fry corn. But the pinnacle of long-cooked fatty comfort is the goat, which requires a small amount of dental work to appreciate. —Mike Sula

Turner's Family Soul Food8223 S. Ashland | 773-488-5700

$$Southern/Soul Food | Breakfast, lunch, dinner: seven days | Reservations not accepted

From the outside, Turner's doesn't look much different from the innumerable ramshackle independent fast-food joints and soul kitchens all over the south side. The menu is hand painted next to the door, and the sign above the awning says the place is called Johnson's. Beyond the stark waiting area it's a little more cheerful: a sliding-glass door leads to the low-ceilinged, fluorescent-lit dining room with a TV and a video jukebox that plays everything from gospel to Guns n' Roses. Still, it's no preparation for the heaping, luxurious plates that appear through a window from the kitchen. The cook, Murilee Johnson, arrives at six every morning and gets to work on about a dozen different daily specials and 28 sides, all the heavy hallmarks of the southern/soul-food canon—turkey wings and dressing, salmon croquettes, ham hocks, liver with onions and bacon, five kinds of beans, okra two ways, mac 'n' cheese, candied yams, and greens simmered with a choice of turkey or pork. Substantial dishes such as these tend to vary little from one place to the next, but Johnson's cooking is something special. She says she does it with "love," and works "by the spirit," and if you're not a believer, her chicken and dumplings—soft stewed meat and fat, toothy noodles—will set you straight. Fine-dining chefs everywhere have rediscovered the wonders of beef short ribs, but hers—dinosaur-size and falling off the bone in a simple, spicy gravy—are fundamentally righteous. —Mike Sula

Uncle John's Barbecue337 E. 69th | 773-892-1233

$Barbecue/Ribs | Lunch, dinner: Monday-Saturday| Closed Sunday | Open late: Friday & Saturday till midnight | Cash only

When Mack Sevier, former pit man at Barbara Ann's BBQ, opened his own place, Uncle John's Barbecue, a few years back, lovers of his unique style of Chicago hot links let out a collective whoop. There's only one place to get these heavenly sausages—lightly charred smoky pork links, aggressively spiced with sage and topped with a drizzle of hot sauce—and that's from Sevier's wood-fired smoker. Meaty spareribs are smoked directly over the wood, resulting in a crisp, fat-in-the-fire outer layer that yields to a moist and toothsome interior. Rib tips, luscious with juicy pork fat and crisp bits of char, are the perfect complement to the hot links. Chicken comes smoked, fried, or in a tasty house special of fried boneless dark meat served with pickled jalapeños. Coleslaw, white bread, and terrific house-made barbecue sauce round out each order. There's no seating at Uncle John's, but I suggest dining auto alfresco, as the tantalizing aroma will otherwise have you reaching for a rib before you've driven a few blocks. —Gary Wiviott

Yassa African Caribbean Restaurant716 E. 79th | 773-488-5599

$$African, Caribbean | Lunch, dinner: seven days

Yassa is run by a family from Senegal, a former French colony whose cuisine, apart from fresh-baked pain francaise, bears little resemblance to anything European. We started with thiebu djen, a fish stewed in tomato with onion, cabbage, and jollof rice; the last is typically "broken" by soaking and pounding with the hands or the butt end of a bottle. Yassa is grilled marinated chicken covered with a sauce of mustard, onion, carrot, and palm oil and served on a bed of rice. Senegalese couscous is made from millet, which gives it a deep flavor that stands up to lamb and vegetables in a thick and creamy peanut sauce. Fish grilled whole over charcoal had a golden red, deliciously chewy crust and white, firm flesh; debe, grilled lamb chops, were also very flavorful. Be sure to try one of the marvelous homemade African beverages: gingembre is fresh ginger root, pounded and sugared in Yassa's kitchen, bouye is the creamy sweet juice of baobab fruit, and bissap is a gorgeous rich red liquor made from the hibiscus flower. There's also jerk and other Caribbean favorites on the menu. —David Hammond

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